Britain’s future strategic direction #10 – RUSI and the balanced force.

Malcolm Chalmers is the author of the latest RUSI paper on Britain’s Future Defence Review, and his interest in this paper is to seek a balanced force against the tide of coming cuts. His concern would be to de-emphasise legacy skills whilst preserving a regenerative capability on the understanding that while they are not crucial now we live in an uncertain world, and as such we must insure against the unknown.

First and foremost it is recognised that we are overspent, over-tasked, likely to witness Defence budget reductions, and must therefore reduce the scale of our capabilities.

Mr Chalmers most optimistic assessment is that the Defence budget will shrink by around twelve percent in the coming parliament, whereupon we can hope that it will increase by one percent per year thereafter. Where matters get ugly is RUSI’s continued belief that this will require significant cuts in capability to achieve a strategic doctrine that can finally live within its means, a truth that should not have come as a surprise to anyone, but a realisation forced upon us by the current climate of austerity.

In contrast to the FDR2 paper by Michael Codner, this paper does not appear to advocate wholesale upheaval in Defence posture, noting that the continental bias of the Cold-War years is no longer necessary as no existential threat looms large, and so he advocates looking at more balanced options that focus the following:

> de-emphasising legacy capabilities from the Cold War

> recognising that we are committed to a COIN war in Afghanistan

> recognising that we are already very land-biased for a naval nation

> that 80/20 solutions will erode our ability to ally with the US

> that most major powers make do with a single carrier given the cost

In looking to create a balanced force he posits that all three of the following measures will be probably necessary, whilst noting that it is possible to operate a sliding scale between based on priorities:

a. reduction of ground units from 98 to 80

b. reduction of the aircraft fleet from 760 to 550/600

c. reduction of major fleet units from 57 to 45

This blog has no interest in gutting any particular branch of the military, ‘balance’ is essential, but it is most interested in leaving a structure that retains the capability for sovereign strategic power projection.  To do so we must first return to the four capabilities Britain currently has:

1. A large, broad spectrum army capable of fighting protracted and high-intensity wars.

2. A naval capability that allowed rapid over-the-horizon forced-entry engagements.

3. Ability to conduct theatre level operations out of area, with the C4ISTAR that entails.

4. A Strategic Deterrent that for reasons of history brings significant political influence.

If we consider the forces deployed in the Gulf Wars wars we can see that the 50,000 plus troops involved are simply no longer an achievable aim given the struggle to maintain 10,000 troops in Afghanistan currently. Britain might well be able to sustain the rolling deployment of three reinforced brigades if the Armed Forces were reconfigured for COIN, and it is possible that six brigades might be ‘surged’ for a sovereign operation of limited duration, but what price to sustain this first capability?

The first and second Gulf Wars also made use of the third capability, something we are alone in being able to do outside the United States, and arguably a useful capability given the decline in sovereign capability evident in our allies, coalitions are the future as far as large operations are concerned.

The second Gulf War witnessed the employment of the second capability in Operation Telic, a capability that also proved useful in both the Falklands conflict and Sierra Leone.

The fourth has never yet been employed, fortunately for all, but its utility lies in its diplomatic leverage and as insurance, not in its use.

In addition, the most likely purpose to which the first capability would be employed is in enduring COIN operations, something that ten years of Iraq and Afghanistan have left the public with little tolerance for, and if a capability is unlikely to be employed by politicians wary of a fractious public then it must be considered of limited utility.

This blog cannot agree that Britain requires only one carrier, as there are only two routes to Great Power capability and if the first is both unlikely to be employed and overly damaging to the naval capability of an island nation then the second must be cherished in order that Britain retains sovereign power projection as an option. Mr Chalmers does not concern himself with matters of diplomatic advantage but this blog is firmly of the belief that Great Power status is of considerable value and should be retained if at all possible.

Given the above, I would tentatively suggest the following balance of forces:


Heavy Brigades (3) –

3x Armoured

3x Formation Reconnaissance

3x Infantry (Armoured)

3x Infantry (Light)

3x Signals

3x Artillery

3x Engineers

Medium Brigades (3) –

3x Infantry (Armoured)

6x Infantry (Mechanised)

3x Infantry (Light)

3x Signals

3x Artillery

3x Engineers

Rapid Reaction (2+1) –

4x Royal Marines

2x Parachute

6x Infantry (Light)

3x Signals

3x Artillery

3x Engineers

Other –

7x Special Forces

1x RM Force Protection

3x RAF Regiment

4x Light (Local)

3x Artillery (Air Defence)

1x Armoured (Training/CRBN)

Total = 82

Compared to the six-plus-two brigades of Future Army (next steps):

6x Armoured

6x Formation Reconnaissance

6x Infantry (Armoured)

6x Infantry (Mechanised)

12x Infantry (Light)

3x Marines + 1x Light

2x Parachute + 2x Light


72x Air Combat (Typhoon)

72x Air Combat (JCA)


36x Air Support

48x Logistics

96x Training

96x Royal Navy (Heli)

96x Army (Heli)

80x RAF (Heli)

Total = 620


12x Submarines

2x Carrier


6x T45

12x C1

6x C2

4x RFA Tanker

4x RFA Replenishment


4x RFA Landing Ship

1x RFA Forward Repair Ship

Total = 56

The above is by no means a definite and final force-structure based on a nuanced understanding of all Britain’s commitments, and it is appreciated that it may not currently allow for specific fixed deployments, it merely represents an indication of priorities based on the political threats that are likely to arise, and it is informed by the following conclusions:

> This blog cannot accept that state-on-state warfare is at an end, therefore sovereign capability must be preserved.

> Britain is already beyond being able to realistically match 15% of a sustained US deployment, so Raiding must be the focus.

> Naval/expeditionary warfare is more suited to the British temperament, and to British requirements as an island nation.

> NATO is transforming away from its posture of massed force for static continental warfare, and specialisation is required.

> Multinational operations will require a ‘spine’ to direct action, and other than the US no other nation can fulfil the role.

The three principle capabilities pursued would be:

2. A naval capability that allowed rapid over-the-horizon forced-entry engagements.

3. Ability to conduct theatre level operations out of area, with the C4ISTAR that entails.

4. A Strategic Deterrent that for reasons of history brings significant political influence.

The intention would be to provide a ‘spine’ for multilateral operations whilst preserving the capability for sovereign power projection via Strategic Raiding. The three medium brigades would serve a contribution for multilateral operations, the three heavy brigades would serve as Article 5 collective defence, and the two marines brigades and the single air-mobile brigade would be on short notice for rapid reaction operations. The three heavy brigades would be on rotation between; Heavy Britain > Heavy Germany > Medium roulement for deployment with the other three medium brigades. The second marine brigade would be formed from the addition of a fourth marine commando and the attachment of three more Infantry battalions, to create a two-plus-two ‘light’ brigade structure.

So yes, after nine previous articles on the subject this blog finally nails its colours to the mast, but it is hopefully clear that a balanced military is recognised to be in everyone’s interest, it is merely a matter of where the emphasis is placed.

[Your blogger is not serving member of the Armed Forces, and defers to the greater wisdom of others when it comes to the detail, preferring to stick to the strategy rather than the tactics if you will permit the analogy, so any comment on the detail here is very welcome as the subject matter of the source article has forced this blogs unwilling hand]

Update – 14/06/10

The prediction of a naval-raiding focus, as opposed an army-COIN alternative appears to be close to the mark, some choice quotes from Defence Secretary Liam Fox:

Fox refused to say which equipment programmes would be axed, but he offered some broad hints. There was good news for the Royal Navy, with Fox suggesting the number of ships had already been cut too much. “We’re going to have an increased maritime role because if you look at issues like energy security and piracy, that’s already pushing us in one direction,” he said.

The RAF is likely to have fewer fast jets designed to challenge Russian bombers over the North Sea, but more helicopters for moving troops and equipment in Afghanistan.

Posing the key questions for the review, Fox said: “Have we cut the surface fleets too much in order to buy high-end capability? In terms of the air force, have we previously concentrated too much on fast jets compared to lift capability?”

Fox said too little had changed in the MoD since the fall of the Berlin Wall more than two decades ago. “This is the review that has to kiss goodbye to the cold war,” he said.

Putting an Army man in the top-spot certainly makes sense when our largest commitment is the COIN war in Afghanistan, but significant cuts in the Army would be ill received if the Royal Navy got their ‘turn’ at the top-spot and were as a consequence the ones seen to have blood on their hands. It is always better that an individual is the focus of internal anger, rather than the organisation, for the former will be forgotten whereas the whereas the latter must endure.

12 responses to “Britain’s future strategic direction #10 – RUSI and the balanced force.

  1. And splendid colours they are! Some commentators delight in their assumption that Britain is declining into a minor power ruled by Brussels. In fact, your and other impartial analyses confirm that we are still in the top rank of nations and a force for good in the world. The end of the Cold War justified a reduction in Britain’s defence effort in Europe, so it is past time that we withdrew our forces from Germany. Our European partners can be relied upon to defend themselves (and us) from attacks by land.

    The UK should now focus on the increasing range of threats around the world, acting alongside the USA and other friendly powers. Britain is linked to a European Community that is economically powerful but foolishly reliant on the USA to defend its global interests. It is unlikely that the USA will continue to subsidise Europe in this way, so Europe must accept a greater military role, with Britain in the lead because we have the skill, tradition and political connections.

    This policy must obviously be based on an expanded Royal Navy – a return to the maritime strategy which served Britain so well for several centuries. This will upset some parts of our armed services, but we should feel no regret for discarding a century of army-based thinking that has seen the bloodiest and costliest wars in our history and a dramatic fall in Britain’s wealth and power. Public opinion will not tolerate another Iraq or Afghanistan in the foreseeable future.

    A navy-based strategy is in keeping with current responses to climate change which are making the sea more important to everyone’s well-being. Ships are the most energy-efficient mode of transport and the most adaptable to cleaner forms of propulsion, so the post-war dominance of air-travel will soon be seen to be an aberration. Britain is ideally placed to benefit
    when the Arctic ice melts enough to allow ships to sail northabout between the Atlantic, the Pacific and the shores of the
    Arctic ocean. The Pacific Rim will then be a lot closer, with all its potential for trade and conflict. Climate change will also
    produce more natural disasters and mass migrations of displaced people, with navies taking the lead in tackling these problems as well as piracy and drug smuggling.

  2. I fully agree with the comments made. The UK should concentrate on maintaing its naval capabilities and focus on being the spine of future multi national/european colaitions allowing as we have in the past other nations to supply the bulk of the troops.

    The bulk of major equiptment procurment in the past decade has been for fast jets which while fantastically capable are unlikley to ever be used in the numbers avalable.

    Mean while we have constantly reduced the size of the navys fleet in the mistaken assumption that a few number of high end hulls will be sufficent to deal with the tasks the navy is given.

    The constant bashing the Navy has recieved over the CVF is in my opionion unjustifyed. Given that these ships will be increadably capable war fighting vessels able to embark upto 36 F35 each I think the £2 billion price tag is more than justifyed. The latest Nimitz and ford Carriers costing in excess of $10 billion a piece often carry only 40 strike aircardft in their airwings. For a fraction of the cost the royal navy is managing to produce a simialr capability. The need for carriers in a European context should not be underestimated. The main capability the US brings to the table is its carrier fleet. European nations can replicate much of the US capability in all other areas (obviously not to the same extent) with the exeption of maratime air projection.

    If the UK concentrated a substantial part of its $50 billion dollar a year defence budget(almost the 2nd largets in the world) it could have a first rate Navy second only to the USA.

    by trying to maintain all three service to a high degree we end up with the kind of ineffective half assed procuments we have seen over the past 10 years (Typhoons with no guns) (Type 45 with no weapons of any kind)

    While it is important to maintain all three services in the UK we must rationalise and pick one to excell.

    The RAF maintains a fleet over over 100 Tornado GR4’s. These aircraft have been of little use since the opening days of the IRaq war. Meanwhilt the harrier’s have been in constant service to the point the naby has to use marine aircore jets to train with. The tornado will soon have to be replaced as its operational service is slated to end in 2018.

    This gives us a golden opertunity to begin the process of reorganising. The GR4’s along with the harriers should be replaced by a smaller mixed force of F35 B and C aircraft with the Queen Elizabeth class being converted over to aCTOL carrier with a smaller airgroup of just 24 F35 C. This move would save a considerable sum with the F35 C being both chaepaer and more capable. The ability to deploy 24 ( and in an emergency 36) F35C to any theatre in the world would give the UK and incredible boost to both its milittary and diplomatic prestige. It would also greatly enhance the EU’s ability to intervene in gobal situations.

    The number of both high and low end navy warships needs to be dramatically increased. I feel a mixture of 16 high end hulls T45 and T26 would provide the navy with a strong capability in a hot war. Especially if these ships a properly equipped.

    In addition a fleet of 48 lower end C3 type warships would allow the navy for the first time in a long time to have a truely globalpresence able to station a decent number of permanent vessels in the Med, Indian Ocean and possibly even the pacific.

    The main capability the UK provides in a European context at present is the ability to embark a marine brigade. This is an ability which should be maintained and enhanced. The Navy desperatly needs to replace HMS Ocean with 2 more capable LPH capable of embarking both helicopters and F35 B’s. A good cost efficent way to do this would be simply to copy the Spanish and Austalian designs for their new projection ships.

    The main priority for the British Army in this new context is to get out of Afghanistan as quickly and cleanlly as possible. After nearly 10 yeasr of fighting the Army is exhasuted and needs a chance to re group and re organise. In a futre defence mix I would like to see a slightly smaller army with more emphasis on light expidioany forces. The British Army could in essence perform the same role for Europe as the US marines perform for America.

    While it is never possible to predict the future we can say that having a world class Navy will certainly help to defend both our interest and nation more effectivley (given our limited resources) than our other two services can.

  3. The carriers (plus JSF) do represent a fantastic capability, and very good value in my opinion too.

    I disagree with the comment about a mixed fleet of F35 “b” and “c”, as this will raise upkeep costs and necessitate a greater number of aircraft, as the benefit of stovl is a very high sortie rate permitting a smaller fleet.

  4. Likewise Sierra Leone. The Paras were flown in by the RAF and when the Harriers arrived they did a bit of recce and show of force but not much else. I am not saying the maritime element was not essential but it is important to realise that over the horizon forced entry can be achieved by means other than a grey war canoe!

  5. I certainly agree, and I would see nothing happen to 16AA, I also appreciate that someone has to clean up the mess once the door has been kicked in, but i still cleave to the principles of the following statements:

    1) That RUSI are essentially correct in their the assumptions on Defence budget cuts and the implications for capability.
    2) That Fox is determined to maintain Britain as a Great Power and will seek to maintain sovereign strategic power projection.
    3) The opposing forces of budget cuts and sovereign strategic power projection will demand a reduced spectrum force.
    4) Focusing the spectrum away from the Navy (of an island nation), and onto the army (after iraq and a’stan) will be deeply unattractive to politicians and the electorate alike.

    If you do an article on this RUSI paper, I would be happy to receive critical feedback on my tentative suggestions here.

  6. aha, i see you have already written the article, my thanks.

    i will repeat here what I said in the comments section:

    in suggesting a one carrier solution he is fundamentally arguing against strategic raiding as we would no longer operate a ‘sovereign’ capability of naval/expeditionary warfare, and I believe it is fair to say that the Navy is already heavily stretched given its commitments.

    to quote Andy Med from Warships1 on merely the matter of insufficient escorts:

    “Firstly there will be the need to provide escorts for the Carrier Strike Group – At least 1 x air warfare ship and one ASW ship but ideally one of each.

    Then there is the ARG. Again 2 of each would be ideal in a high threat environment (especially if we intend on using one of our nice shiny new 65,000 tonne aircraft carriers as an LPH).

    Standing commitments – FRE, APT (N), APT (S) and Armilla (evolved in recent years to usually include 1 x Frigate in the NARG and 1 X Frigate in the Gulf or Horn of Africa region. So thats 5 units permanently deployed (on paper, although some of these commitments have been gapped in recent years or been fulfilled by RFA’s). Using the 1 deployed, 1 working up / deploying and 1 returning / undergoing maintainence/training rule, these standing commitments require a force of 15 frigates or destroyers to support them. Also, with the UK’s stated desire to be able to not just contribute to but to command NATO and allied taskgroups (through Commander UK Task Group), at least one of these vessels needs to have flag facilities in order to be able to command one of the 3 NATO / EU taskforces operating in the Horn of Africa / Gulf region.

    So far that’s 23 vessels – ironically the number we have in commission today and this figure doesn’t allow for major refits of which at least 2/3 ships will always be in, other contingencies or attrition.

    So add in 3 in refit and another couple 3 – 4 for other contingencies / attrition and we arrive at a total of 30 (still less than claimed was needed in SDR 98).”

    This RUSI paper does not across to me as an overly biased towards the Navy, but then I do have my own stated preference for Strategic Raiding……….

    [edit] even my generous suggestion above only leaves the Navy with 24 escorts……. [/edit]

  7. He makes a good point but makes the fatal assumption of having a frigate do everything. Do we really need a type 23, equipped with Sea Wolf, a 4.5″ main gun and Type 2087 towed sonar array to catch pirates and smugglers.

    By using more appropriate designs and seriously considering forward basing you reduce the need for high end frigates and having vessels in transit, thus allowing a smaller number of better equipped escorts to surge with the carriers and amphibs as needed

  8. This I believe is the purpose of the C2 “general purpose” frigate, to take on the non-specialised standing tasks.

    I do believe that if we are going to be relevant to the Defence Review process we have to strongly consider making the first three principle core to our assumptions:

    1) That RUSI are essentially correct in their the assumptions on Defence budget cuts and the implications for capability.
    2) That Fox is determined to maintain Britain as a Great Power and will seek to maintain sovereign strategic power projection.
    3) The opposing forces of budget cuts and sovereign strategic power projection will demand a reduced spectrum force.

    The fourth principle listed above is my own conclusion only.

  9. Pingback: RUSI – A Question of Balance | Think Defence

  10. Pingback: RUSI – A Question of Balance - Think Defence

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